Oct 16, 2015 ยท 8 minutes

At Pandoland in June, I asked former Fab co-founder Bradford Shellhammer if he had trouble raising money for Bezar –his re-do of Fab.

After all, Fab had become the unicorpse posterchild, whose early flame-out convinced some investors never to invest in ecommerce again.

He said he hadn’t, which – despite the fact that I’m an admitted fan of Shellhammer – I found surprising. Bezar seemed a do-over of what many people, including me, loved about Fab: the quirky, curated aesthetic. But it came mired in a flash sales model that hasn’t proven a great path for building a sustainable, large business. Investors were ready to back that again? In a world filled with stumbles by Gilt and Zulily?

Sure, Shellhammer calls his sales “pop up shops” and makes the point that this isn’t mass-produced branded inventory whose sole reason for being “flashed” is liquidation. But the experience of logging in everyday to see time-limited sales still felt... dated.

Yesterday, Shellhammer revealed he’d had another plan all along: Leveraging early success of the pop up shops to launch a designer marketplace filled with permanent shops. It’ll be like Etsy, but more curated, with an elevated aesthetic and no restrictions around being handmade only. Nary a bird will be put on it.

So that’s how he raised capital, I thought. Despite the concerns of many over Etsy’s future as a public company, VCs do love a good marketplace. “We are not pivoting, we are adding a completely different part of the business to the one already thriving,” Shellhammer says. “We will continue to launch four pop up shops everyday. Finally, people will see the big difference between what I did before and what I always dreamt Bezar would become.”

So if the marketplace is leveraged off the excitement of the pop up shops, how well is Bezar doing? Shellhammer tells me that membership has doubled over the last three months, and revenues have grown 30% per month on average. Despite Shellhammers rejection of “Fab math” and an insistence that you have to aspire to make money on each purchase, 40% of orders are from repeat customers. (Hi!)

Bezar is about emotional commerce, Shellhammer says. He confesses he frequently cites an anecdote about me when he’s talked to investors. My ex-husband got me an unpolished micro-diamond necklace off Fab when I gave birth to my little badass “diamond in the rough” Evie two and a half years ago. “I shop at Amazon all the time, but are you going to make an emotional purchase like that on Amazon?” he says.

Shellhammer is banking on the fact that I don’t want a purchase like that in the same virtual cart next to the Diaper Genie. It’s the same reason I argued Amazon Fashion was doomed. I shop at Amazon more frequently than any other ecommerce company. But even I struggled to register there when I was pregnant with my first child. It’s just not a place you go to browse and make emotional purchases. It’s where you buy a commodity you know you want.

The distinction shows a major change since the days when Fab described its ambitions as creating an Amazon, only with better-designed things.

But has he just traded a vision of doing a “better-designed Amazon” for one of doing a “better designed (and curated) Etsy”?

Bezar now has about 100 designers, all of whom have already had pop up shops on the platform. By the end of the year Shellhammer hopes for 1,000 designers teeming about in his marketplace with permanent storefronts. “It’s never going to be like two million,” he says.

A marketplace with limits may be antithetical to the idea – and venture appeal – of a true marketplace. But it also avoids the costs of operating something at the scale of Fab and the annoyances of an Etsy or an eBay, with too many items, too many copycat items, and lousy discovery.

Still there are the same risks that the amazing aesthetic Shellhammer is known for gets diluted… again.

At one point in our conversation, he referenced another craft-like market place that was so hopelessly hipster it referenced its “beard shop” in an email newsletter. “I don’t even know what that means,” Shellhammer says.

I suggest that possibly it could refer to those horrific knitted caps with knitted beard covers that were making their way around the Internet a few years ago. “Yeah, I don’t know who would sell those…” Shellhammer said, before confessing. “They are called Beardo and they were one of Fab’s number one brands, OK? Look, it was a time and place. The beard and moustache thing was of the moment five years ago. I’m gay and I like Liberace, and I like Elton John, and sometimes I just like stuff like that. I like a little kitsch every once in a while. I own one of the knit animal onesies we have on the site now, and it’s so soft. It’s like the nicest sweater you’ll ever have. I’m going to wear it to the office on Halloween with Hermes.”

The passionate defense of Beardo makes me a little nervous as a Bezar regular, but beyond that, the approach makes sense and solves some annoying problems of the outdated flash sales model.

As many things as I’ve bought from Bezar, there are plenty of sales windows I’ve missed. I either decided not to buy the item, or went to the designers own site to buy what Bezar did all the hard work to surface for me.

In one case, I saw a rug that would be perfect for my kids’ new playroom. One issue: We haven’t even started construction work on it yet. Where the hell am I gonna put the rug in the meantime?

Anecdotally, Shellhammer hears this all the time from Bezar fans. A few days is just too short for some purchases, he says. “We had someone buy a $3,000 rug on Bezar,” he says. “I’m a crazy person and I can’t even fathom the idea of seeing a rug and and buying it in less than three days. I’d have to measure, talk to my husband about it…”

It’s also lousy for word of mouth. Shellhammer’s husband was stockpiling some art for a new office he was moving into – much of of it purchased months ago on Bezar. When he finally hung them, several coworkers admired certain prints and where they could buy them. “That fucking sucks,” Shellhammer said when his husband told him. “A lot of people just don’t shop [according to pop up shops’ schedules.] And it’s a bad experience with the holiday season coming up.”

Further, it’s what designers are telling him they want. “I went on a tour and spoke with over 100 different designers and the consistent thing I kept hearing was, ‘What you did before was cool, but really what we’d love is something like Etsy but for designers.’”

As Shellhammer has said, this go around is about having a laser focus on designers and how to make them successful. His success, he hopes, will follow. And many of them don’t really have a clear place to get volume online. “It’s hard for the modern designer to make it in the world,” he says. “A lot of brands on Bezar have sold to Urban Outfitters or Anthropologie, only to see something extremely inspired by their work done by a private label the next year. They go direct, setting up shop at craft fairs or the Brooklyn Flea. They try to get into boutiques and museum gift shops. They get little bits and pieces here and there. They’ve done a Squarespace or Shopify storefront, which are beautiful and easy, but it’s hard to get shoppers. It’s hard enough to get people to come here and I’m being written up in Fast Company and Pando.”

So consumers like me say they want it. Designers say they want it. But can it work without strangling the quirky magic of the pop up shop?

Consistent quality and discovery will be key to designers getting more value out of it than existing marketplaces. Shellhammer will have to figure out the network effects that make the service better the more people who join – because without network effects, marketplace businesses quickly lose their lustre.

A key might be pooling small, passionate groups of fans of design. There are those like me who are fans of Shellhammer’s aesthetic and arguably each individual designer has their own following. If they can feel like Bezar’s marketplace is a place for people like them, that it’s an honor to be part of it, they’ll direct more fans there. And because there’s a commonality to the aesthetic, one designer’s fans will discover other similar designers’ work.

Like anything in ecommerce, success is a longshot. But it’s absolutely the right playbook and the right risk to move farther away from what Fab was good at... and ultimately wasn’t.